Hidden historical heroines (#17: Grace Darling)


Grace DarlingGrace Horsley Darling (24 November 1815 – 20 October 1842) was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter in Victorian England, unremarkable, excepting the fact that in 1838 she and her father took a rowboat out on stormy seas to rescue nine people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.


Grace was born in 1815 in Bamburgh in Northumberland. Her father, William Darling, was a lighthouse keeper, so she spent her youth in the local lighthouses. On the night of 6th September 1838 a great storm appeared to batter the coast. Grace’s brother was away, so she assisted her father in ‘battening down the hatches’ before retiring to bed.


The noise of the storm was so great that Grace found she could not sleep, and sat up into the early hours of the next morning, watching the storm on the sea below the lighthouse. Suddenly, she spotted a great mass on a nearby rocky shoal – clearly a vessel broken completely in two – a dreadful shipwreck. Alarm mounting, Grace scanned the scene for survivors, and eventually registered tiny movements on a low island of rocks near the wreck.


Grace roused her father, who deduced that the storm and currents were so strong that the lifeboats could never make it from their port to the rocky outcrop. William hesitated; their rowboat needed two people at least to man it and he was loathed to take his daughter out into the tempest, but Grace begged him, even going so far as to start untying the boat herself.


William took them on the fastest but safest route that he could deduce – the rocky outcrop where the small band of survivors were visible was almost a mile away. When they arrived, it was to find twelve people – nine alive, three dead. The ship had been the SS Forfarshire, out from Hull, headed to Dundee, with 63 souls on board. It had been pushed off course by the storm and foundered on the rocks, splitting in half almost instantly.


The lone surviving woman, a Mrs. Dawson, was in a state of hysterics, clutching the bodies of her two dead sons to her chest. Heartbreakingly, she had to be forced to leave the bodies behind to be collected later. The third fatality was a vicar. Grace held the boat steady in the waves whilst her father helped survivors into it. When they arrived back at the lighthouse, Grace remained behind with her mother and tended the survivors, whilst her father and the healthiest of those rescued in the first wave went back to collect the remaining passengers. Two hours after William and Grace had arrived at the rock, the lifeboat did, and collected the three bodies. One of the volunteers in the lifeboat was Grace’s brother. The weather was still too foul for the lifeboat to return to its port, so everyone sought shelter at the lighthouse. It was three whole days before the sea calmed enough for people to travel onwards.


The media latched onto the story of Grace Darling the heroine and her stalwart father almost immediately. Letters by the hundreds arrived from admirers and well-wishers, requesting that she kiss the paper and return it, or provide a lock of her hair or other similar tokens. Grace felt compelled to respond to each and every letter, an impossible task that soon exhausted her. Dutifully she sat for hours so that artists could create portraits of her. Even Queen Victoria herself sent her appreciations and £50.


Grace the celebrity


After meeting with her, the Duke of Northumberland realised that Grace was unprepared to handle the level of interest in her, and that she was narrowly avoiding ruining her reputation (all that mattered, to a young Victorian girl!) by feeling compelled to appear in “circuses” and other such performances. He became her formal guardian and deflected a great deal of the less salubrious attentions, but still Grace grew more and more anxious. She could not bear the level of scrutiny she was still receiving and the prospect of marrying and having children of her own terrified her. She began to refuse all invitations, even to an event where Queen Victoria herself was attending.


In 1842, Grace was staying with her cousins when she got caught in the rain and caught a chill, which developed into a persistent cough. She grew worryingly ill and weak and was returned to her family home under the care of the Duke of Northumberland’s personal physician, who diagnosed tuberculosis. This diagnosis only served to make Grace’s anxieties worse, and she grew increasingly weaker. At quarter past eight on the night of 20th October 1842, Grace asked to be raised from her pillow and died in her father’s arms at the age of just 26.


Grace is remembered by a stained glass window in the Bamburgh church, a public memorial placed so as to be clearly visible from the sea and was made the iconic figurehead of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, people who – to this day – like Grace, risk their lives to save souls lost at sea.



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